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To Catch a Copper: a closer look at police crime drama television

StopWatch reviews Channel 4's new series To Catch a Copper

In the wake of growing criticism of the police following the damning 2023 Casey Report which found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, Channel 4 has launched its new series To Catch a Copper. And oh boy, does the show prove Casey’s point! Documenting the Counter-Corruption Unit's handling of complaints received by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), the series is put forward as a documentary which sheds light on police misconduct, use of force, and unconscious bias.

Mental health breakdown or disturbing the peace?

Episode 1 features a woman experiencing a mental health crisis which tragically escalates with her attempt to jump off Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. In a classic instance of disproportionate use of force, two Avon and Somerset police officers arrest and restrain the woman, contending that she is disturbing the peace by having the audacity to experience a mental health emergency. Far from referring her to the mental health services which she evidently needs, the woman is held by her throat, fastened with a spit hood, and is subjected to PAVA spray at close range. Under the guise of protecting her from hurting herself, at the police station the officers proceed to pin her down and strip search her while she screams in protest. After witnessing the harrowing disregard for her need for support, viewers are given the underwhelming IOPC statement that the body ‘did not consider it appropriate for charges to be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service’. Despite this judgement, Avon and Somerset police have arranged for a gross misconduct hearing, which is scheduled for June 2024. We will have to stay tuned for an update on this one.

The episode later cuts to another incident where police body camera footage shows officers stopping a disabled woman from leaving a hospital despite her desperate pleading to not take her back. As with the bridge arrest, the officers either do not register or actively ignore the glaring evidence that the woman is in a state of crisis. Apparently amused by her distress, the officers mock her as she appears to urinate on herself, with one officer calling her a ‘fucking bitch’.

What a suspicious skin colour

Episode 2 hits us with some déjà vu as 9 officers tackle a young black woman holding her baby on a bus in Bedminster, South Bristol. Trying to pick up her child from school, the mother is unable to pay for her bus ticket as the driver does not have change and her card declines. Requesting a change ticket, the mother is met with hostility from the driver, who proceeds to call the police as the bus remains at a stand-still for ten minutes while the mother does not alight. The police officer antagonises her, threatening to put in a referral to social services on the grounds that the mother is shouting in front of her baby. After evoking the angry black woman trope, the police are baffled that this provokes an even more agitated response from the woman. Arresting her on the grounds of assaulting an officer, the police discharge PAVA spray on her while she carries her baby in her arms. This bid to protect her baby and her refusal to be separated from them is read in bad faith by investigator Ian Jameson as he reviews the footage, framing the incident as the mother ‘using her baby as a human shield’. Describing her screams of ‘I can’t breathe’ as playing the crowd, Jameson’s commentary portrays the mother as manipulative and contriving rather than the victim of escalated police force. Indeed, Jameson insists that ‘the use of force is quite low’ and ‘perfectly reasonable’ as the officers aren’t using batons on the woman while she carries her child. Rather than attributing blame to the police for the child’s distress, Jameson asserts that it is the mother’s fault that her baby is crying, reasoning that she should have acquiesced to police demands.

Examining the case with inspectors, detective chief inspector Jane Wigmore acknowledges that they ‘are not the most diverse team at this point’, and that their assessments of the case may not be mirrored by someone from the same ‘cultural background’ as the mother arrested by the police. However, far from restoring our faith in the show’s capacity to invoke critical thinking among the viewership, any morsel of hope is swiftly dispelled as the episode summons the perspective of Mark Loker from the Police Federation (an organisation which represents the interests of officers), who affirms ‘I’ve never seen what would be defined as racism in this force’. In which case, we might have to point him towards our The colour of injustice report to uncloud his vision.

With the first officer on the scene exonerated of misconduct, the IOPC declared in its statement that the police ‘use of force was justified in the circumstances’ and that the ‘use of PAVA in close proximity to others is far from ideal but guidance does allow it’ (might we remind them that ‘others’ includes an infant?). Despite the IOPC advising the officers involved to attend reflective practice, viewers should not hold their breath as the episode earlier shows the first officer asserting that she ‘literally cannot think anything I could’ve done differently’. Not boding well for the constructive learning outcomes of officers examined by the IOPC, Investigator Richard Budd reassures the officer that ‘no one’s criticising any of your decision-making’, shrugging his shoulders at all counter-factual scenarios arguing that ‘whatever you tried, the outcome may well have been the same’.

The episode then turns to Inspector Kris Harris, the only Black officer working in the unit investigating police misconduct at the time of recording. Harris plays into police recruitment campaign narratives that if only the police better represented the racial makeup of the British population, then all could be well again and public faith in the police could be restored. Seeking to ‘bring about that change from within’, Harris teases the audience with vague allusions to police racial profiling as he evokes his experiences of being stop and searched while growing up in London, pointing very faintly to his inconclusive reflections on whether his ethnicity played a role in the frequency with which he was stopped by the police. Given that the most recent Home Office statistics show that Black people are stop and searched 5.5 times more often than white people, we reckon we might know the answer to that question.

The viewers are transported to Stapleton Road, Easton in Bristol, where CCTV footage show a 20-year-old Black man, Yousef Abdulrahman, smoking a cigarette on his way home from work. Officers stop and detain him, stating that they suspect he is in possession of drugs. Seemingly routine practice, if the incidents aired by the series are anything to go off of, Yousef has PAVA sprayed in his face even though he appears to be compliant with the arrest. A bystander films the incident, appalled by the officers as they shove Yousef to the ground with a knee strike and handcuff him while he cries in pain. Instead of providing reasonable grounds for suspicion, the police inform Yousef that they are detaining him because he was found in an area that is a hotspot for drug dealing – by all means insufficient grounds for arrest. After strip searching Yousef at the police station, lo and behold the officers do not find any evidence that he is in possession of anything illegal. Having been released, Yousef tells the crew at Channel 4 that despite being so young, he has already been stop and searched 5 times, 3 of which were by the same officer as the incident caught on the CCTV footage.

While suggestive of police harassment of Yousef, this line of enquiry is not pursued by neither the Counter-Corruption Unit nor the team at Channel 4, which instead features Mark Loker’s (Police Federation) reassurance to the officers that ‘If you’re not getting complaints, you ain’t doing policing’. Re-igniting the racist discourse on violent crime by young Black males from ‘multi-faith and multi-cultural backgrounds’, the scene becomes a pitiful play of the woes of officers who have to do their job policing an area plagued by what one officer describes as the challenges of ‘the diversity of the people’ and a high crime rate. A tale as old as time, the IOPC concluded that the officers had no case to answer in this instance and did not make a referral to neither the Crown Prosecution Service nor a police disciplinary tribunal.

Still in Bristol, the episode covers the arrest of a 30-year-old Black man, Reon, on suspicion of burglary in July 2021. Taken into custody and repeatedly asking (six times!) to receive medical assistance to attend to the overwhelming pain in his head and neck, Reon’s requests are denied even after he vomits in his cell. Suffering from symptoms of bleeding in the brain (severe headache, loss of balance, and confusion), Reon later collapses and vomits again in his cell, yet he is not visited by the police custody nurse until 3 hours later. Finally, the nurse calls an ambulance and Reon, now unconscious, is pulled out of the cell and transferred to a hospital. The doctors who see to Reon discover that he is suffering from a life-threatening blood clot in his brain which needed to be removed. Although Reon ended up in a coma and on a ventilator in A&E, chief constable Sarah Crew absolves the officers involved, insisting that ‘they are not medical professionals’ and that they had to contend with a ‘dynamic situation’.

The bad apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

After portraying the horrific negligence and violence of police officers, the series confronts us with the dismaying – yet unsurprising – statistic that 4,000 of the 5,000 complaints filed during the four years of filming led to no action. Despite the recurring introductory sequence quote from investigator Jameson, ‘we urgently need to take these officers off front-line duties’, we are informed by the end credits that only 43 officers have been dismissed as a result of the complaints filed, and three officers have been convicted on criminal charges.

As a whole, the filmmakers’ proclaimed intention of critically examining the misuse of police powers drastically misses the mark as the interpretation of incidents is predominantly led by police figures such as chief constable Sarah Crew. Having told The Observer that her collaboration with the series’ director Ashley Francis-Roy was motivated by the hope that unveiling the inner workings of the police force would restore trust in the police (The Observer, 2024), it becomes quickly apparent that the show’s claim to objectivity doesn’t check out. Repeatedly bemoaning the challenges of police work and how engaging with belligerent members of the public increasingly desensitises officers to the needs of the vulnerable citizens whose rights they are violating, To Catch a Copper sings a tune that we are all too familiar with: a ditty about so-called well-intentioned but under-equipped officers.

Despite strides to emphasise the structural flaws of the police accountability apparatus, To Catch a Copper consistently culminates its narrative with an apologist and sympathetic stance towards officers committing gross misconduct coupled with a dismissal of the most abhorrent incidents of criminally convicted officers as bad apple cases. From symbolic police meetings with community leaders whose insights are swiftly side-lined in defensive self-justificatory gestures, to sending officers to undertake reflective practice training, one can’t help but come away from the show feeling as though it is a dismal display of the slap on the wrist logic of so-called police accountability in England and Wales.

Even though the Avon and Somerset Police Federation were consulted and fully supportive of the filming of their officers’ activities, it appears that the local police did not like the reflection they saw in the mirror held up to them by the docuseries as the force responded with immense fury (Somerset County Gazette, 2024). Perhaps striving to quell public backlash, one month after the last episode of To Catch a Copper aired, Channel 4 curiously announced that its Night Coppers show will be having a comeback. As with most forms of televised copaganda, Night Coppers is centred on ‘get[ting] into the hearts and minds of the Brighton response officers at a time when confidence in the police is at an all-time low’, according to executive producer Sarah Spencer (The Argus, 2024). Pivoting the public eye away from police misconduct towards an in-depth exploration of the private lives of individual officers, this may be a hasty PR move to mask the mere snapshot into police abuse of powers revealed by To Catch a Copper.

Inquest Deaths in Police Custody 2013-2022

Source: Inquest, 2024.

If you’ve been affected by police misconduct and require assistance to make a complaint, please contact us at:

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